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Let’s Talk About Cult Movies

todayMarch 13, 2015 8

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Andrew Nogay

Web Content Contributor 

*KTSW consists of and respects varying opinions within its staff. Opinion articles do not reflect the opinion of KTSW as a whole.

A movie poster for Faults
It’s honestly a pretty great poster. From the Internet Movie Database.

A few days ago I saw a movie called Faults. It premiered at South by Southwest in 2014, and just recently came to theaters and video on demand. It stars Leland Orser as a down-on-his-luck cult expert who is hired by a couple to deprogram their adult daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who under the control of a cult called The Faults. It was a good film. The acting was excellent, the story kept moving and it was actually pretty funny. It also made me realize that I am terrified of cults. I was more unsettled watching Faults than any movie since I saw God’s Not Dead. It actually shook me, but there wasn’t necessarily anything that made me jump in fear. Just the concept itself frightened me, and I wasn’t quite sure why.

I talked about it with my friends afterwards, and the conclusion we came to was that cults are frightening because you’re not challenging someone over an emotion, like greed or anger. It’s their beliefs. It’s something inside of them that is nearly impossible to change. In movies, if a cult wants to kill you, or themselves, they are going to do that. It’s the same reason ISIS or any other terrorist group is terrifying. They have a set of goals, and they will do anything to accomplish those. Cults are like a Wall Street businessman, but with slightly more nefarious ambitions.

Like many things that mysterious, cults make good movie subjects. They seem to have sprouted in the late 1960s with movies like Rosemary’s Baby, one of the most dread-filled movies ever made. Many of the early cult movies were about Satanists, or groups of people perverting Christianity in some way. This could be seen as a reaction the general public had to the counter culture movement. After all, if kids are smoking dope, having casual sex and listening to rock-n-roll, they’re probably worshiping Satan. Filmmakers used this fear and misunderstanding to create anxiety for moviegoers. There are some really great movies that came out with Satanists in the forefront, like Race with the Devil, which is perhaps the greatest road movie about cults. Race with the Devil also represented a variation on the cult movie; it wasn’t a total horror film, but was more of an action/thriller.

Another variation that happened in this loose genre in the early ’70s occurred with The Wicker Man in 1973. It is about a British policeman who is sent to a secluded island village to investigate a murder, who finds out that the people living on the island are pagans who have devious plans for him. This movie represented two things: first off, it was the first of these cult movies to overtly show the dichotomy between a counter culture and mainstream society. The policeman is a stuck up Christian, while the villagers are incredibly open with their sexuality, and worship no Christian God. Secondly, it was the first major movie about a cult where the cult weren’t Satanists.

The scary thing about the Satanist cults were that they were evil people doing evil things, often ridiculously. That’s just how they were presented. In The Wicker Man, the cult wasn’t evil…that was just their belief system. It’s all they knew. That difference changed cults from standard antagonists to something stranger. Something audiences don’t understand. We don’t know about cults, we don’t know what they do and we don’t know why they do it. Along with the real life mass suicide of over 900 people of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in 1978, the perception of cults changed around this time. An interest in understanding them emerged. Most notable books about cults were written after 1978, and the movies about cults changed from them being the antagonists to the movie itself being about cults. The movies also changed from being horror movies to dramas, used to examine the psychosis of not just people in cults but normal people as well.

The Master has an intensity that few movies posses. It’s so dense that it would take hours dissecting the entire thing, but two things are clear: that the religious sect that Phillip Seymour Hoffman creates is bull, and that they prey on weak people like Joaquin Phoenix’s character. However, despite being unnerving, The Master is a straight psychological drama. Faults on the other hand is an unnerving psychological drama that uses some neat tricks to create an atmosphere of desperation that was truly disturbing. While The Master and other recent cult movies are based mostly in reality, Faults uses the supernatural, or at least the illusion of it.

Since we now know at least a little bit about cults, the fear of their mystery has subsided slightly, which is why cult movies grounded in reality are dramatic movies. But by bringing supernatural elements into play, Faults re-creates the unknown that the earlier horror cult-based movies had. Of course the most frightening part of Faults is the unraveling of an individual that happens over the run of the film, but the fear of the unknown is what pushes it over the top. 

The fear of the unknown is one of man’s primal fears. It’s always been with us, and it always will be. Another fear people have is the act of losing control. Everybody wants to be their own master, and cults take that away. However, people have another fear: the fear of loneliness. That is one thing cults provide, a place for people to be surrounded by like-minded individuals. Sure, like-mindedness isn’t a good thing, and the beliefs systems are sometimes out of whack, but cults provide something select people need. Nobody in their right mind would want to be a Nazi, or a serial killer, or any other movie villain staple, but cults on the other hand seem easier for normal people to get caught up in. The fear of finding ourselves in that situation is maybe the biggest reason such great, complex are made about them.

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